In Newark, a Lesson in Fatherhood

The men in Mayor Cory Booker's Fathers Now program are defying statistics and stereotypes.

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Of course, with those numbers come harsh narratives about black men. "The reality is that African-American men are not stepping up and being responsible fathers. The data clearly indicates that African-American men are not taking an active role in helping to rear their children -- many are absentee fathers," Ivan Page, a specialist in the black family who teaches social work at Albany State University in Georgia after teaching at Spelman College for 20 years, tells The Root.  

Even President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment in one of his first orders of business when he took office in 2008, telling the congregation of one of New York City's largest black churches, "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception."

But if you ask Fathers Now Co-director John Leslie, shirking responsibility is the last thing his students want to do. "They need help getting over the legal barriers -- oftentimes they need help getting over the personal barriers," he says. "But just like anyone else, they want to take care of their children. You see that once they have the support they need."

So far, Fathers Now has been successful. The program brags that it places 70 percent of its graduates in gainful employment and that among those participants who have been incarcerated, there's a recidivism rate of only 4 percent, compared with the state's 55 percent.

Happy endings and positivity aside, don't mistake the program's supportive approach for being soft. Leslie describes orientation as "like boot camp," and he's proud to say that Fathers Now whittles groups of 25-30 men down to 15-18 during the first two weeks of each session, based on attendance, homework and participation.

Once the participants clear orientation, the program staff makes sure they stay, using an informal, man-to-man technique through which the nonprofit really shows its fraternity side. "We'll go out to a guy's house if he's absent," Leslie says. "We'll run him down: 'Where are you, man? Why aren't you in class?' We still call guys every morning."

Lessons Learned

That approach has made a difference in the lives of men like Murray, whom Leslie calls one of the program's biggest success stories. After a stint in the Army that ended when he became depressed over marital issues and went AWOL from his post in South Korea, Murray says, he was accused of domestic violence and spent three weeks in New Jersey's Delaney Hall correctional facility before the charges were dismissed. His next stop was Fathers Now.

For him the program clicked from day 1. He leveraged the job-training resources, networking and volunteer work to land a good-paying job as a parking-enforcement officer. "Instead of staying in my depression, I realized I had to take care of me," he says. "Take care of yourself and stop blaming other people."

That newfound sense of accountability is just as applicable to his relationship with his 6-year-old daughter, Jaelyn. He can easily rattle off the adjustments he's made to his parenting style: He now opts for working with her on reading and rewarding her for staying ahead in school instead of bonding over video games, movies and Chuck E. Cheese's, and he's hyperaware that he's her main male role model. "Now I teach her things like, when we walk on the sidewalk, I walk on the outside to protect her," he says.